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TV & DVD Review: ‘Path to Paradise’ (HBO)

PTP posterA story very much of its time, with indictments of individual liberty and with apologies for Islam, the made-for-cable Path to Paradise: The Untold Story of the World Trade Center Bombing is a capable account of what led to the February 26, 1993, Islamic terrorist attack on the Twin Towers before Moslem jihadists brought them down and mass murdered 3,000 people eight years later.

What’s unique about this picture, which premiered on premium cable channel Home Box Office (HBO) on June 14, 1997, is that it aired after the first major Islamic terrorist attack on the U.S. mainland though before the worst act of war in U.S. history. Both assaults were initiated by the same idea-driven fundamentalists and against the same primary target that would be forced by faith-based monsters to collapse on September 11, 2001. This provides an interesting window through which to examine HBO’s telefilm as a fact-based TV drama with enough time and distance from both strikes on the two towers.

As with almost every film about Islamic terrorist attacks ever made, Path to Paradise is bad on framing the enemy’s philosophy and better on recreating dramatic tension. Historians can see and judge for themselves, and there is a significant library of movies to study, that movies about acts of war by jihadists diminish the role of jihad – the Islamic faith’s tenet that life is an unending political struggle and one must wage war on the infidel – in direct proportion to the proliferation of the siege. For example, the earliest pictures about attacks on Americans on planes, ships and diplomatic missions explicitly name and identify, and often explore, Islam as the root of radical Moslem motive to strike down the infidel (anyone associated with the West). As recently as 1996, with Stuart Baird’s excellent Executive Decision starring Kurt Russell and Halle Berry, deeply religious Moslems are rightly depicted and named as seeking to destroy the West with catastrophic acts of war.

This is hardly the case anymore, and, as attacks get more catastrophic, references to Islamic terrorism shrink. The worst movies, such as Steven Spielberg’s Munich, imply that these acts of war are justified. Path to Paradise falls somewhere in between, neither ignoring and rationalizing jihad nor properly pegging Islam as the source for the worst modern acts of war. One Islamic character, based on an Egyptian who purportedly tried to warn the U.S. about the parking garage bombing of the Twin Towers, insists that Islam means peace.

Path to Paradise, which co-stars Marcia Gay Harden, is, as its title suggests, focused on what motivates Islamic terrorists to commit mass murder, which they did on that winter morning in lower Manhattan, blowing up a rented van, injuring 1,000 and killing six people. Here, Peter Gallagher (the film’s best asset and in one of the actor’s strongest performances) portrays FBI Special Agent John Anticlev recounting in retrospect how he and NYPD Detective Lou Napoli (Paul Guilfoyle), who were part of a joint task force on counterterrorism in the New York area, tried to catch and stop the Moslem radicals before they struck. After an assassin (Shaun Toub), who follows the commands of a blind jihadist sheik (Andreas Katsulas), murders a rabbi, it’s the good New York cops versus the bad and incompetent cops, who refuse to judge Islamic terrorist videos and writings – one translator dismisses the hateful, anti-American ideas as “Islamic poetry” – and the terrorists only fail to bring down the twin skyscrapers through their own errors. Aided by an Islamic bomber (Art Malik) who sails through U.S. immigration despite being in violation of the law, the terrorists come, go and attack as they please.

This leads the Gallagher character to conclude that freedom of religion is the problem, a barrier to stopping crime and acts of war. But Path to Paradise repeatedly demonstrates and dramatizes to the contrary in spite of itself, showing that a nation up to here in Big Government with layers and layers of controls and bureaucracies is at the mercy of those who follow rules. In an early pre-Mom role, actress Allison Janney appears as a policewoman who properly ridicules the incompetence of the federal government in fighting Islamic terrorism. So much of what’s depicted here, and this telefilm aired years after the 1993 attack, prefigures the government’s total dereliction of providing a national defense.

After the rabbi was gunned down by a jihadist, for instance, a government spokesman rushed to judgment and declared that there was “no indication at all” of a jihadist conspiracy, just like today’s government spokesmen do about Moslem attacks on the U.S. at Fort Hood, Boston and Benghazi. The police statement was made when evidence indicated that the opposite was true.

It’s tragic, too, that Marcia Gay Harden’s FBI agent deadpans to the informant that “the FBI doesn’t get to Libya much,” when he comes clean about the blind sheik’s jihadist plots in Africa (the Obama administration supposedly sent the FBI to Libya to investigate the 9/11/2012 attack on Americans at Benghazi). The reality that the plot to destroy the West and take over the world for barbarism is winning is undeniable as the informant talks about plans to remove Egyptian dictator and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak. Like so much of what’s depicted in Path to Paradise, that happened months and years ago.

Nothing is so obvious, of course, as one watches this movie, as the fact that the Twin Towers would soon be downed and Islamic law would spread across the globe, gather power and topple country after country from Algeria to Iraq (now emerging as a new caliphate) as forecast by the lone voices against jihad who are deemed too harsh, extreme and pro-Western. Structured like a police procedural, the 90-minute Path to Paradise doesn’t get into the more detailed plot points, including what biological agent may have been prepared for or laced in the 1993 World Trade Center bomb, but it is an excellent example of what powers up the jihad and allows it to spread, fester and annihilate. In fact, unintentionally, the picture’s end credits punctuate the point that appeasement of jihad – the West’s refusal to name, identify and destroy state sponsors of Islamic terrorism – is ending America from within: a disclaimer as the towers still stand while the credits roll reads: “While based upon actual events, this film portrays the actions of a small group of individuals. It does not reflect the beliefs of the majority of Muslims and Arabs.”

How do the 1997 filmmakers know what they claim to know about the beliefs of most Arabs and Moslems? Blank out. Public opinion polls are not cited as evidence, not that polls are permitted in religious dictatorships that dominated the Arab world, then and more so now.

With the Arab world from Africa to Asia disappearing into a barbaric caliphate rising against the West, that statement that most Moslems are peaceful cannot be accepted as true. The towers are destroyed. The Pentagon has been attacked. The rights of the individual are under siege from an omnipotent American state rising in proportion to the rise of jihad and not a single counterrevolution against Islamism has taken root in the Arab world.

Path to Paradise despite the drawbacks provides an account of how the looming empty spaces and spreading darkness came to be.

Movie Review: Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer posterA small foreign film about an onboard rebellion against an eco-Stalinist dictatorship, Snowpiercer, marks the English-language debut of South Korean writer and director Bong Joon-ho.

If this sounds strange, it’s because this dystopian movie takes place on a perpetual motion locomotive. Snowpiercer concerns the aftermath of a failed experiment to stop global warming that instead causes an ice age and nearly destroys human life on earth. But don’t take that too seriously. Amid the layering of multiple political themes, there’s also a hodgepodge of Nietzsche’s ideas, anti-industrialism and warnings against deification of the dictator and treating technology and ecology as a religion. Add a severe matriarchy, with Tilda Swinton as a toothy fascist in charge of keeping people down on the train, and a visual style of German expressionism and you’ll start to get the picture, which is distinctly anti-environmentalist (the dictatorship obsesses about “sustainability” and population control, key tenets of the eco-faith). But know that Snowpiercer is purposefully vague in order to garnish its stylized filth, rot and graphic violence (I take it as a dramatization of rationalism).

“We control the engine, we control the world,” goes the line from dictatorship to the poor, weak, oppressed dictated, led by Chris Evans (Captain America) as Curtis, who is mentored by John Hurt (V for Vendetta) and accompanied by Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot). The cast, which includes Octavia Spencer (The Help) as a mother, is good, though it’s hard to stand out in the grime as they revolt against government rationing and brutal kidnappings of lower class children. As the rebels make their way through the train, rocking as various external forces affect the ride, thinning the herd and learning more about the nature of what lies ahead, the action fires up again and again. Blood spurts, often in slow motion.

Evans is excellent as always. Bell is also especially focused in his performance. Spencer makes an impression, too – so do Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung as a father-daughter pair of drug addicts – and Allison Pill as a teacher is effective in depicting a character that recalls today’s public, which is to say government-controlled, schools and she does so to the extreme. Swinton overacts as only she can, evoking her evil eat-little-children-as-a-snack glee in the Narnia movies.

The plot climaxes in a steam room, followed by a scene out of a West Hollywood street party. Only, wait, there’s more. Too much more and the film drags on too long as the audience waits for the reveal of what powers the train’s heavily and unquestioningly worshipped engine. All comes together in a logical if depleted way. Countermarketed against Transformers 4, with an ironic twist on MSNBC’s or Barack Obama’s theme (“we move forward”), Snowpiercer (based on a French graphic novel) rips, blasts, chops and even cajoles. It ends up as an interesting, if cold, bleak and fetishized, story about stopping the motor of what moves us backward.

Movie Review: A Long Way Down

ALWD posterSuicide is difficult to dramatize and I like the spirit of this ensemble movie’s thoughtful approach. Especially deft in his choice of facial expressions, moments and shots to linger and draw upon for emphasis of each character’s dilemma, director Pascal Chaumeil renders a very good film about four troubled lives on the verge of coming to a chosen end.

Based on the novel by Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down (available on demand and opening in theaters on July 11) stars Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots as strangers who end up on the roof of a London building on New Year’s Eve, each with the intent of committing suicide. As each person’s plans to die in solitude are ruined, they mutually make a contract to temporarily delay suicide plans, forming an unconventional, dysfunctional family. It’s like The Wizard of Oz with each other’s support as the Emerald City.

In a sense, they’re each their own flawed man behind the curtain.

Characterizations and portrayals are well done. Brosnan and Collette give their usual best – this is probably Brosnan’s best screen performance since The Fourth Protocol – and Paul as J.J. the dark American musician and Poots as a foul-mouthed female wanting to be loved are perfectly cast. Each suicidal individual has depth, secrets and a reason to want to die.

Doesn’t everyone? This is the basic truth at the core of A Long Way Down, which dramatizes that, at its worst, living life is like facing the reality that it’s a long way down, whether one regards the bottom as realizing worst fears or facing a fiery pit of hell. The universality of suicide – I saw the film the day it was reported that an overzealous Tea Party activist who faced criminal charges had shot himself in Mississippi and that the Golden Gate Bridge would add a suicide net – is part of what lets the audience grant the dubious premise that four strangers might form such a pact around shared pain and the wish to terminate life.

This black comedy is not a clinical documentary and should not be judged as such – nor is it a serious examination of the right to die like The Sea Inside – and it is also not to be dismissed as a frothy escapade like Four Weddings and a Funeral with more extreme subject matter. There is much to appreciate here. Chaumeil has an ability to frame and move pictures to tell a story.

For instance, two birds in flight accentuate a crucial connection. Other symbolism enhances the film’s somber yet ascendant tone. A last, lighted cigar is brutally extinguished to set the scene that life can be hard and brutal. A lighted Christmas tree juxtaposes a transformative moment of joy for a self-made family. A store’s signage signals the dark and distorted world the suicidal human often inhabits.

The most prevalent image is the sun. It quietly rises in a new dawn and lights the way back to living. It bathes the face with a new vigor and, when the sun goes down, the fear of darkness envelops each character who struggles valiantly to reorder and remake life to their own special needs.

None of this is done with aspersions cast on those who choose to check out. Whatever each person’s form of private agony, the fact that this is a cruel world is not sugarcoated or glossed over. The desire to seek an end to pain is never questioned. But the decision to do so very much is.

There’s no point in disclosing what drives each character to want to die – or to stop wanting to die – as this is part of what makes A Long Way Down feel like a strong, satisfying journey that takes the audience a long way up, though its ending is too sentimental. Brosnan is outstanding as a TV personality gone wrong. He acts with his eyes, his face and especially his voice, conveying inner rage and the utter sense of despair that creeps into the soul and spreads too fast to catch it.

One character pleads that he wants for the foursome a world that’s a kinder place “to us and for us”. It’s the same character that names what makes it so hard to pull out of a downward spiral. Don’t mind the pain, comes the line in a breathtaking point in the picture, it’s the hope that gets you down.

A minor but pivotal character – a man of science, a doctor, if such a producer is possible under national health care – is the one to name with wisdom what it takes to get back up. It is poetic that the doctor – a voice of reason who heals and saves life – (and this doctor has a fascinating face) caps the climax of this thought-provoking, humorous and moving 96-minutes of self-recovery times four.

Movie Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction

transformers4_posterStart with cute dinosaurs, add a fine cast that knows how to do parts with a dash of overperformance, sprinkle current political themes, pound the action over and over, mix in the Chinese for better foreign box office and stir. The result is director Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction for Paramount.

The plot defies description and at some point the audience is exhausted. But Hasbro’s autobots and decepticons are back and they’re just as much fun or tedious as they ever were in a movie, depending on one’s age and perspective. Bay, working with Ehren Kruger’s screenplay, shows more respect for a story this time around, to the extent possible. His arrested development, non-intellectual, nine year-old boy sensibility is intact with the attention span to match. Nothing on screen lasts for longer than a few seconds, though with a coherent main plot and dedicated character actors such as Stanley Tucci as comic relief, Kelsey Grammer as a power-lusting government agent and Mark Wahlberg essentially as Mark Wahlberg, the movie combines its stomach-turning sensory assaults with elements of Cars, Die Hard and the Fast and Furious pictures to deliver a Saturday matinee that’s sure to kill a couple of hours. When I asked about press notes at the studio screening, a publicist just looked at me and deadpanned: “This is a Transformers movie.” So I have no clue who the two young lead actors are and it’s not worth the effort of cross referencing movie sites. They are both fine in the film.

The same can’t be said for the Chinese actors through no fault of their own. Their inclusion is so conspicuous, like the movie’s beer and car product plugs, that they detract and exhaust from an already overloaded movie. The Chinese militarism doesn’t fit, either, but all of this appears later in the film. The first part involves a rogue government conspiracy to round up the autobots and catch leading good ‘bot Optimus Prime. The nefarious plot entails a Transformers origins story that’s best left unsaid. Enter Wahlberg superfically (very superficially) representing family and property rights as an inventor in Texas whose nubile daughter wears cutoffs and screams and gasps throughout the movie. Action moves from Texas to Chicago to China. In between, Bay includes homage to Westerns with the autobot outlaws in Monument Valley and the Texas phase includes passing references to government thugs.

The best scenes of Transformers: Age of Extinction never last long. They get swallowed by subplots. Interesting points about worshipping at the temple of technology, loyalty and the military-industrial complex are similarly lost in the din of pandering to Asian markets. When it’s focused on car chasing and action-driven humor (despite the astronomical body count), with Tucci getting the funniest lines, the fourth Hasbro action figure movie can be entertaining. I saw it in 3D which adds nothing but weight on the nose and dollars to the ticket price. The picture is also being released in IMAX theaters.

Eli Wallach Dies

Actor Eli Wallach, an exceptional actor whose work in motion pictures, stage and television spans decades, has died. He was 98 years old. From his role as a sexually predatory cotton gin owner in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956) to his performance as an embittered writer in The Holiday (2006), the Brooklyn-born Army veteran Wallach was electrifying on screen.

EliWallachYou couldn’t take your eyes off of him. I’d just watched him the other night as Guido on Turner Classic Movies dancing with Marilyn Monroe in her last movie, The Misfits (1961), another fine film. It’s a haunting Western co-starring Thelma Ritter and Clark Gable in his last movie, too, and Wallach depicts a sidekick to Gable’s cowboy. But he makes the character into so much more than that. Wallach’s Guido is an automotive mechanic in Reno who up and quits his job to chase wild Mustangs as part of this strange, lonely and unlikely quartet. His character starts as a regular fellow who spots Monroe’s newly divorced bombshell in an upstairs window and he unfolds as a widower with a past worth knowing about, and letting go of, in an unforgettable scene in which he dances, really dances, with the bombshell who is suddenly a human not merely an object. Her tender yet biting insights revive his lust for life but it’s Wallach’s eyes that transmit everything essential about his character’s story.

Small, important roles were masterfully rendered through his artistry. He was excellent in Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hoax (2007), memorable in NBC’s ER (2003) and as a judge in LA Law (1991), and he added to Godfather, Wall Street and Chinatown sequels. He could play hard or soft, gay or straight, monsignor or rabbi and he played them all. He was featured or co-starred in pictures with Clint Eastwood, Audrey Hepburn, Mickey Rooney, Gregory Peck, Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif. His 1960s work in such influential films as The Magnificent Seven (1960), How the West Was Won (1962) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) stayed true to his abilities and his dedication to his work continued in exemplary performances in The Deep (1977) and Skokie (1981) and until a few years ago. Eli Wallach ended his career as he had started it in his film debut as the villain in Baby Doll, pictured here, with his form fitting each role flawlessly and with his character as the highest purpose of each performance.